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Take a Peak
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Two members of the Ridgeway family hike through Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Patagonia: "Choique?" my wife, Jennifer, asks. "The Indian name for rheas," I tell her. "See, over there, like small ostriches. Two of them." "Watch where you're going!" she warns me, as our small pickup truck - with our three teenagers, Carissa, Cameron and Connor shoehorned in back - unexpectedly drifts onto the road's shoulder. I stop and grab my binoculars.


"They've got babies," I exclaim. "Six, maybe seven of them."


We're on the first day of our month-long drive around Patagonia, the vast region at the southern end of South America that spans Chile and Argentina. In the back of our rented pickup are seven big duffels with tents and other gear. Cargo aside, I'd made a deal with Jennifer to alternate camping with stays in hotels or estancias, the big ranches of Argentina.


It's 8 pm when we enter Torres del Paine National Park, our first day's destination, and we still have three hours of daylight. We stop to watch a guanaco, a llama-like relative of the camel, roll in the dirt not more than 20 feet (6 meters) from us; we stop again at a small lake to admire two black-necked swans and six Chilean flamingos. We crest a rise and stop again, this time for our first close look at the granite towers of Paine.


Patagonia travelers kick back and refuel at Rick's Cafe in El Calafate.
Our first night is spent at the Hosteria Pehoe, on a small island off the shore of its namesake lake. It's 11 pm when we finish dinner, and out the dining room window alpenglow bathes the Torres del Paine in yellow light.


"There's a williwaw," I say, pointing across the lake to a powerful squall blowing spray at least 50 feet (about 16 meters) into the air. Patagonia is famous for wind, westerlies that charge unabated across the southern Pacific Ocean until they slam into the jagged spine of the Andes and spawn the madcap gusts known as williwaws.


Next day, with about 40 co-passengers - backpackers, mostly in their 20s - we cross the lake on a catamaran to a campground, where we set up our tents. The kids and I make a 10-mile (about 16 kilometers) round-trip hike. The skies are clear and the wind moderate, gusting to only 30 miles (48 kilometers) an hour. For views this trail is as good as they've seen: tusks of gray granite 10,000 feet (3,125 meters) high; glaciers with walls of cleaving seracs; two backdrop lakes, one azure and one turquoise.


In addition to the Torres del Paine, a visitor wanting to sample the best of Patagonia has to visit Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park, specifically the Moreno Glacier in the south and the monolithic spire of Mount Fitz Roy - and neighboring Cerro Torre - in the north.


We cross the border into Argentina at Cerro Castillo. We're on the famous Highway 40, La Cuarenta, stretching nearly 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) from just south of the border with Bolivia to the Strait of Magellan. The main artery parallel to the Andes, La Cuarenta was mostly rock and gravel until recently. The new paving is most welcome.


Braving gusts and choppy terrain, hikers press on toward Mount Fitz Roy, one of the tallest mountains in the Patagonian Andes.

The New York Times Syndicate

These are the expansive steppes of Patagonia - the rolling hills, buttes and brush flatlands that extend from the mountains to the desert coastlands of the south Atlantic. Charles Darwin, one of the first Europeans to see these steppes, wrote, "In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes".

Three hours later we hit a comparatively silky section of paved road leading to El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. The main street is lined with souvenir shops, tour agencies and places to eat.


For the next several days, we'll be in and around Los Glaciares National Park. The Moreno Glacier, an hour-and-a-half drive west of El Calafate, is one of the most popular destinations in Argentine Patagonia.


From the parking lot, we descend through a forest of stunted beech trees to a series of viewing platforms that bring us eye to eye with a wall of ice 200 feet (63 meters) high and 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) long. The seracs that have cleaved off the glacier float in the turquoise water of Lake Argentino.


Beyond that, we can see the glacier stretching for maybe 20 miles (32 kilometers) or so - into a stark sanctum of sharp peaks characteristic of the Patagonian Andes.


We approach El Chalten, the town at the north entry of Los Glaciares National Park, to find the granite spires of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre hidden in dark clouds.


We check into El Pilar, an inn a few miles outside El Chalten. Though we can't see it, we are assured that the window of the dining room frames a stunning view of Fitz Roy. On our next morning, ignoring the williwaws that roar down the valleys, rattling the roof of El Pilar, we make a four-hour hike first to Fitz Roy base camp, then down to El Chalten.


As we enter the forest, the 30-foot-tall (about 9 meters) beech trees protect us from the wind. Hoary wisps of old man's beard hang from twisted branches; purple flowers of wild pea carpet the forest floor; a flock of austral parrots lands in the canopy. The forest gives way to a clearing, and suddenly, a williwaw, like a horizontal tornado, knocks us to our knees.


Next morning, through the dining room window, a wall of granite looms out of a hole in the clouds that closes as suddenly as it opens. We load the truck and head out for the next stage of our adventure, to the estancias in the remote north of Patagonia. During a stop in El Chalten for groceries and gas, the sky clears.


My eye ascends Fitz Roy's east buttress, rising some 8,000 feet (2,500 meters), which would dwarf Yosemite's El Capitan. Ice-plastered Cerro Torre pierces the blue sky like a white rapier.


We drive east along the shoreline of Lake Viedma, one of three enormous lakes - including Lake Argentino to the south and Lake San Martin to the north - whose glacial waters extend like aquamarine seas. Our destination is Estancia La Maipu, a 90,000-acre (36,000-hectare) sheep ranch on the shore of Lake San Martin that, as the condor flies, is only about 24 miles (38 kilometers) northeast of El Chalten but requires a 124-mile (198-kilometer) drive on gravel roads to skirt the mountains.


We have arranged to stay in several estancias, each a day's drive from the next. From the last one we'll cross the border and head to the Chilean city of Coihaique and then Puerto Aisen.


We set out on a morning horseback ride with Osvaldo Montiel, a Chilean gaucho in his mid-60s who came to Argentina when he was 23. Following Osvaldo's lead, we take off at a trot and ascend a long hill. From the top we watch two condors approach a cliff. Descending the opposite slope, we halt when Osvaldo stops to examine an animal print.


"Puma," he says. "Maybe an hour old, maybe less."


That afternoon the estancia hosts a party, inviting folks from nearby estancias. "Maybe we should form our own Republic of Patagonia," one of the neighbors says. "We have oil, lumber, minerals. We are friendly, and we work hard. We could have a good tourism industry."


The puffy summer clouds are building over the snow peaks; the two condors are still soaring. "But whatever happens in the world," he concludes with a wistful smile, "things will be OK. Because here in Patagonia, we live in paradise, and we will always have that."


The New York Times Syndicate


(China Daily July 26, 2007)


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